By Tom Iacuzio
Essex, Vermont. Hillsborough, North Carolina. Montreal, Canada. Bailey, Colorado. Cazernovia, Wisconsin. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Six school shootings in six weeks from late August to early September.
Oct. 26. A former Flagler College student is murdered just blocks from the school’s main campus.
Oct. 31. Two female students are robbed at gunpoint after getting in a car with people they just met.
With this the recent “trend” of crime in a random mix of high schools and colleges, how safe are you really? How prepared are we for the unthinkable?
According to Daniel Stewart, Flagler College dean of student services, the college is “about as prepared as we can be.”
Stewart pointed out that this is not an area that is overlooked, and that these incidents all occurred off-campus.
“Anything that happens on a college campus, I kind of heighten my awareness. Whether it be a fire in a residence hall, a rape, any of that makes me think about what happens here,” he said. “It’s on my mind almost every day.”
According to Stewart, Flagler undergoes a yearly review by the St. Augustine Police Department. This review looks at things like the height of bushes, lighting, how facilities are locked and also ensures security cameras have good coverage.
Should an incident occur, Stewart said that the course of action involves “thinking first of the safety of as many students as you can possibly make safe.”
Stewart acknowledged that in the initial stages of an incident, safety would rely on campus security. Asked how confident he was in security’s ability to handle such a situation, Stewart said, “I’d like to think I’m 100 percent confident, but that’s kind of an unrealistic position to be in. As I said, we are as prepared as we can be.”
Al Howard, director of security, says that his department is working hard to maintain the safety of Flagler students.
“Security here at Flagler College is ever alert for those that do not belong on campus, but we need the help of everyone, all the eyes of every member of the college community,” Howard said.
Howard does admit, however, that security cannot handle this alone.
“Security cannot be relegated to just those in uniforms,” he said. “Everyone must play a part in protecting each other. It is not being suggested that anyone put themselves in harm’s way, but simply call security when you see something out of place, be it a stranger that seems wrong or a student that may hint at violence.”
The murder of former student Thomas Graber last month placed the spotlight not only on campus security but off campus as well.
Stewart mentioned that while no new security measures will be implemented because of these events, the school has asked for additional lines of communication between the St. Augustine Police Department.
Stewart added that this may be a good time for a program on security, and hopes such a program will be well received.
“The last one had zero attendance,” said Stewart. “Perhaps with the heightened sense among the students, this may be a good time.”
As a parent and professor, Assistant Professor of Communication Nadia Ramoutar, is affected by these tragedies on two levels.
“You’d like to think that [our children] are safe and that the people who are working there know what they are doing and that somehow they are protected,” she said. “What we’ve seen in the last few weeks is that’s not true.”
Ramoutar is no stranger to safety issues on campus. Last semester, while teaching a night class in the communication building, her class was interrupted by a homeless man in a worn three-piece suit “looking for Jesus.”
“Fortunately, he was a peaceful person. It wasn’t a dangerous situation,” Ramoutar said. “But had he been [dangerous], there would have been nothing I could have done.”
Ramoutar thinks that the location of Flagler College is one reason to worry.
“There’s no doubt that the setup at Flagler makes us vulnerable,” she said. “We have tours. We bring strangers into our midst. We are an open campus in the middle of small resort.”
In the end, Stewart admits that any security plan that might be in place is not foolproof.
“It’s a lot like hurricanes,” he said. “We can sit there and have the greatest plan in the world but until we actually get hit hard with one, we don’t know if it is going to work as well we think it is.”
Student David Fleming agrees with this assessment. “I feel pretty safe,” Fleming said. “I don’t think we’re the most prepared we can be but I also don’t think we’ll get caught with our pants around our ankles either.”
But the big question on the mind of the public is: Why do these things happen?
Joseph Vlah, chair of the sociology department, thinks that society should hold a good portion of the blame.
“In a society where you have troubled people, where violence is highly regarded as a form of expression, and you have weapons, it doesn’t take very much to link the three,” he said.
Vlah warned however that the state of things should not be overblown.
“You hear terms such as a “rash” of these things happening,” Vlah said. “It reminds me of the “rash” of shark attacks. I think over time, I’m not certain how much of a rash of these things there is.”
Tina Jaeckle, professor of sociology, added that over the last 10 to 15 years incidents of school violence has steadily declined.
“The reality is that we have approximately 120,000 public schools in this nation with over 50 million students,” she said. “If you break down the statistics, violence on school campuses is about one in one million.”
One thing everyone agrees on is in order to prevent these tragedies, students must be the first line of defense. Stewart warns students to avoid walking around in a fog.
“Don’t be as accepting of people that you don’t know as college students typically are,” he said.